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At Large

Time-bending and hustling

/ 11:37 PM February 15, 2014

If there’s one thing the movie “Winter’s Tale” accomplished, it may be this: driving moviegoers back to print. More specifically, I wouldn’t be surprised if bookstores see a sudden surge in sales for “Winter’s Tale” the book, written by Mark Helprin in 1983.

Despite the general disappointment of film critics, I was quite entranced by the story and the conceits of “Winter’s Tale.” It’s a time-bending tale of an Irish thief who falls in love with the consumptive daughter of a newspaper publisher while evading a host of demons and being rescued by a flying white horse. Moreover, it’s set in both turn-of-the-century New York and New York in the present day.

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But all throughout the film, I couldn’t help feeling that there was more heft to the events and characters than was immediately palpable. Surely, there was more going on than an unfolding love story or even a fight of good versus evil. And true enough, as reviews of the novel, and a long excerpt, reveal, the novel was far more ambitious, sprawling, philosophical and fantastical. But crammed into the two-hour limits of commercial filmmaking, and the liberties taken with the plot and characters, “Winter’s Tale” comes off as lightweight, self-conscious, too ambitious for its own good. This despite the ponderous voice-overs at the start and end.

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It’s no mystery why “Winter’s Tale” was timed to open (at least in the United States) on Valentine’s Day. It’s being billed as a great romantic saga clothed in the fanciful duds of magic realism. On the surface, it seems the pairing of Colin Farrell as the two-bit thief Peter Lake and Jessica Brown Findlay as the dying Beverly Penn has enough youth, charisma and physical attraction going for it. But the chemistry just isn’t there, despite the earnest efforts of the leads.

Fortunately, there’s Beverly’s younger sister (portrayed by Eva Marie Saint as the much older version) who adds a bit of spice to the proceedings. Russell Crowe tries his darnedest to embody evil as the smarmy Pearly Soames, a demon wandering the districts of New York bent on an inexplicable vendetta against Lake. Also inexplicable is the uncredited cameo of Will Smith as Satan. Try as he might, Smith still can’t summon the necessary gravitas to portray the Lord of the Underworld. I think Morgan Freeman would have been much more successful, although, having portrayed God, he might have begged off due to “artistic” considerations.

So I have resolved to try to score a copy of “Winter’s Tale” the book, if only to satisfy this nagging sense that, after the movie, I have
only touched the bare outlines of a story that promises so, so much more.

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No one really captures your heart or your fancy in “American Hustle.” Except maybe Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn who is by turns smart, stupid, canny, clueless, manipulating, ambitious, and yet simple. And all this unraveling in the course of one scene!

The outlandish story and characters in the film by David O. Russell (who also cowrote the script with Eric Warren Singer) was loosely based on “Abscam,” originally short for “Arab Scam” until Arab-Americans raised a stink. It was an FBI operation in the early 1980s that managed to net one senator, several congressmen, a mayor, and minor officials in New Jersey.

Indeed, reading an account of Abscam, I couldn’t help relating it to the George Washington Bridge closure that now threatens to torpedo New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential dreams. Is it just fate or the water that the worst politicians seem to populate New Jersey?

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Anyway, “American Hustle” is a fictionalized and bowdlerized telling of this operation. But the movie is much more concerned with the felons who set up the sting than the crooked pols it netted. It’s like a movie based on the current “pork barrel” probe that focuses on “Ma’m Jenny” Napoles and Ruby Tuason, while sidelining “Pogi,” “Sexy” and “Tanda.”

Central in the telling is Irving Rosenfeld (an unrecognizable Christian Bale), a hustler and con man who ups his game when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who assumes the identity of English noblewoman Edith Greenleigh in scamming “investors” who believe they are dealing with London bankers. Into this operation steps FBI agent Richie Dimarco (Bradley Cooper), who stings the couple and coerces them into taking part in a wider operation targeting state officials.

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What ollows is a confusing, frenetic con—who is conning whom?—that draws in the Mafia, fake Arab sheiks and a hapless if idealistic Mayor Carmine Polito (a likewise barely recognizable Jeremy Renner), who functions as a magnet for all the other crooked pols.

It would be easy to label “American Hustle” a lighthearted romp through the rotten precincts of American law enforcement and officialdom, as well as the workings of the petty criminal class, but there is more going on here beneath the snappy dialogue and dizzying camera work.

The statements are not so much political or ideological as personal: how people can end up fooling themselves when they begin to believe their own hype.

No one comes out smelling like roses. Not even Dimarco who, despite the string of arrests, is sidelined when Rosenfeld and Prosser maneuver to protect Mayor Polito from the worst consequences of the sting. And the shining, shimmering, annoying Rosalyn? Let’s just say she gets her just desserts, which is not entirely a bad thing.

Still and all, Lawrence entirely deserves her “Best Supporting Actress” Golden Globe, and the other leads would make satisfactory choices for the slew of awards they’ve been nominated for. But that doesn’t mean we’ll like any of their characters any better.

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TAGS: American Hustle, At Large, Cinema, Movies, opinion, Rina Jimenez-David, Winter's Tale
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